From the outside, you can see the glamor and glory Lynnewood Hall once exuded. The Pennsylvania mansion, called "the last of the American Versailles", is a remnant of a lost era, built to hold an astonishing private art collection to rival some of the world’s finest galleries.
It seems shocking that such a magnificent home that was once one of the largest in the whole of America could simply be left abandoned. While the stories of what happened inside its walls are lost to time, the story of what happened outside of it to the family that owned it, and whose downfall caused its abandonment, is one for the books. Let's go back in time together to when the tragic story of Lynnewood begins...
The Art Collector Magnate
Industrialist Peter Arrell Browne Widener commissioned the development of Lynnewood Hall for his own private home with the riches he accumulated through his work helping to found US Steel and the American Tobacco Company. It was designed by Horace Trumbauer, who was a prominent architect of the time known for his work on private homes, hotels, and much of the Duke University campus, and took nearly three years to build from 1897 and 1900. With a total of 110 rooms, describing it as a mansion doesn’t do the size of the home justice.
Widener was also known for his appreciation for art, and the halls of his sprawling estate were once filled with a massive private collection of artwork, comprised of the works of European masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, which was one of the most significant of its time. But behind the scenes, the home bore a dark history.
Private Tragedy Inspires Dream Home
Lynnewood Hall was the stuff of dreams when it was completed at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was born out of tragic circumstances that Widener had experienced. He had been living in a beautiful townhouse on Broad Street in Philadelphia alongside his wife, Hannah. But his idyllic existence would be shattered in 1896 when Hannah took a holiday with her family on their yacht off the coast of Maine and tragically died.
Widener was naturally distraught. He didn’t think that he could go on living in the home they had shared together and wanted to get out of the city. He thought he could build a legacy home, something that would honor Hannah and be there long after he too was gone. Little did he know that his wish would be in vain.
Only The Best
Widener had come from very little, so he was happy to make a big statement about the wealth that his family had acquired. He decided to hire only the best to carry out the plans for his new home. That was what led him to the architect, Trumbauer, as he had already made a name designing grand and elaborate residences.
This enormous project would be one of Trumbauer’s largest ever. He chose as his inspiration two famous mansions - one in New Jersey, called Ballingarry, and the other Prior Park in England, both famed for their architecture. Widener wanted to impress and draw attention and Trumbauer was only too happy to oblige.
The grounds and manor were a staggering sight to behold after three years of construction, which had totaled just shy of $8 million, a figure some of us could only dream of now, but which back then was absolutely preposterous. Nothing was out of range of Widener’s pocket and he spared no expense, from the detailed column work to the landscaped gardens.
The walls of Lynnewood Hall were built using 70,000 square feet of limestone. The residence boasted 55 private bedrooms, 20 full bathrooms, and a number of grand rooms for hosting parties and receptions. Other rooms were dedicated solely to his amazing art collection built up through the years. It was built for generations of families to enjoy, but sadly, it would see barely any of them.
Bills, Bills, Bills
Managing a home of this size and keeping it in mint condition required a small army. The estate had over 400 acres to maintain including gardens full of exotic plants that took a team of gardeners. The public and private art galleries had to be manned with the right staff, the pool needed cleaning regularly, and the ballroom that could hold up to 1000 guests was another matter entirely.
Widener hired more than 90 people to help run the estate. Thirty-seven full-time, permanent staff looked after the indoors while 60 were required for the exterior. Whoever visited the property could marvel all they liked, but few could imagine just how much work went into keeping the place.
Entering the home was an important moment for Widener. He wanted visitors to gasp and feel awed by the house. He knew that after the beautifully manicured gardens, it would take something really inspiring to make people draw their breath in wonder at the hallway. First, guests would enter through one set of doors covered in bronze, followed by another set made of gold.
Then the grand hallway soared to a high ceiling, framed by detailed ornate columns and black and white patterned tiles across the floor. This was just a taster for the rest of the house to let guests know they had stepped into opulence of the highest order.
The Grand Ballroom
Widener wasn’t one to keep all the rooms to himself either. He preferred entertaining plenty of guests and was very generous with his invites. When he had the home built, he had already planned for a spectacular event and had specifically requested a grand ballroom to hold around 1,000 guests. The image below gives some indicator of its size and splendor.
It covered 2,550 square feet of the house and its walls were paneled in walnut. Wooden columns etched with gold leaf punctuated windows and mirrors along the side. On the ceiling, between solid gold moldings was a painted floral motif. Widener’s parties often had a live band playing to the room, and were known as places to be seen for the highest of Philadelphia society.
Peter Widener spared no expense when decorating this home. To him, it was to be a living masterpiece. He chose the renowned interior designer William Baumgarten and French firm Jules Allard et Fils to come up with the plans for the interior of his home. He wanted the design to reflect his love for the finest things life had to offer.
A local magazine took a look around the place once it was finished and noted how the place had "myriad silks and velvet". Gilded moldings were at every turn and priceless Persian rugs were thrown about artfully. There were even Louis XV chairs and Chinese pottery. Of course, Widener’s artwork was on show including works by Donatello, Rembrandt, and Raphael.
No Wall Left Bare
Even a walk through the halls was a breathtaking affair. Widener had left no walls bare, and the art that he collected was some of the world’s most sought after, even now. The staircase has ornate iron railings and was framed by limestone columns. Flowers and exotic plants were carefully arranged near doorways.
One of the hallways featured a painting of the millionaire himself, painted by John Singer Sargent, one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the time, who is still well respected for his work now. There was wealth sewn into every corner of Lynnewood Hall (when professional estimates were made about his wealth in the late ‘90s, it was thought that Widener was worth somewhere in the region of $25 billion), which was why its demise would come as such a surprise and shame.
A Private Museum
The private museum at Lynnewood Hall was one of the largest rooms on the whole property. This was Widener’s private space and one he often frequented. Many museums at that time would have been staggered to find in his collection works by Vermeer and Rembrandt, as he was a fan of the Old Masters. There was also a fine selection from Corot, Degas, and Renoir among his French late 19th century paintings.
The gallery displayed pieces from the floor right up to the ceiling. More than 300 priceless pieces adorned the walls and open space from porcelain sculptures to expensive furniture carved for royalty and stained glass windows by Giovanni di Domenico. It truly was an art lover's dream come true.
With such a display of wealth and culture inside the house, it stood to reason that the grounds of the house were also spectacular. Widener appointed the French landscape architect Jacques Gréber to ensure that the gardens would be a fitting accompaniment to the rest of the property.
For the entrance to the estate, Gréber designed a long driveway to wind up through the gardens so that guests could build expectations on their way. Behind the house, Gréber created a rose garden and added a number of decorative fountains. There was also a formal garden for walking. The 60 staff members hired to take care of the gardens were kept busy trimming the huge trees back and ensuring the grass was always full but not too long.
The Dining Room
As much as Widener loved a big party, he placed great emphasis on dining so the room where people ate was designed to have a strong impact. The center point was a pure walnut table while the walls were also made of the same wood with inlaid panels of green and white marble.
As Widener was known for his exceptional taste in art, naturally there was some hanging in the dining room. He had two Gobelin art tapestries and there was a bust sculpture of Prince Louise II de Bourbon that dated back to the 1600s. However, Widener didn’t just entertain in the ballroom and dining room...
Luxurious Guest Facilities
He made sure that his guests felt completely comfortable with gilded bathrooms and plenty of warm lighting in every room. It could be said that the Hall had everything you could think of. There was even a large indoor swimming pool, and the estate required so much water that it had its own reservoir.
The pool area also had a changing room for guests, as well as a private changing room, presumably for Widener and his family. There was a squash court on the grounds for light sport. As well as the reservoir, the estate had its own electricity plant so that every single room in the mansion and the grounds could have a full supply of power. It’s difficult to imagine how much energy that would be!
A Short-Lived Fantasy
It’s true that the home was like a palace, swept straight out of the creative minds of a generation. Widener moved into the property as soon as it had been finished and set about entertaining. What he, or any of his guests, didn’t realize, is that the estate would not stand the test of time. In fact, its glamour would fade into nothingness.
Widener was aging, but he had sons that he could pass Lynnewood Hall onto. However, tragedy never seemed far away from this family. In the space of less than twenty years, many more sad events would befall them. Widener’s wife had been gone less than four years when he moved into the house, but just over a decade later, another family member would be lost.
Heir to the Great Property in Philadelphia
Widener’s eldest son George Duncan Widener Sr., was born in 1861. By the time his father moved into Lynnewood Hall, George was running the Philadelphia Traction Company and was on the board of directors of several important companies. He was a regular visitor at his father’s home and was also known for his patronage of the arts.
In 1912, George had bought a new property - The Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. He sought a great chef for the hotel and decided to take his wife, Eleanor, and son, Harry to Paris in the search. For their return voyage, he booked tickets on the most amazing ship ever built, the RMS Titanic.
A Worthy Investment?
George usually had sound advisors and an astute business sense. It was this that led him to actually invest in the Titanic as well as volunteer as passenger. The anticipation around its construction led George to think that sailing on its maiden voyage would be a huge historic event, which, as we know, it turned out to be for all the wrong reasons.
George was a popular man and well-known for his wealth. The other passengers in first-class liked to attend dinner with him, and he hosted a party on board the ship. It is rumored that the captain of the Titanic, E.J. Smith, was at George's dinner party on the night of Sunday, April 14th, 1912 but left due to warnings of iceberg sightings.
A Deadly Maritime Disaster
The sinking of the Titanic is a well-known tale. The largest ocean liner in service at that time struck an iceberg, which buckled the starboard side of the ship and broke open 16 compartments to the sea, ensuring that the "unsinkable ship" would go down. More than 1500 people perished in the freezing cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean due to a lack of lifeboats and poorly executed emergency plans.
In the chaos that ensued, George safely loaded his wife and her maid into one of the lifeboats, but both he and his son were never seen again and their bodies were never recovered. This meant that Lynnewood Hall was now without its proper heir, and Peter A.B. Widener’s health was failing.
After the sinking of the Titanic, Peter A.B. Widener’s condition deteriorated further and on November 6th, 1915, he passed away in Lynnewood Hall. The New York Times reported at the time that he had died of "old age and deep sorrow caused by the loss of his son and his grandson in the Titanic disaster." It was an easy decision as to who the inheritance would be passed on to, as Peter had one surviving son, Joseph. Joseph Early Widener had been born in 1871 and attended Harvard University.
Joseph’s main passion was thoroughbred horses but he also shared a passion for art with his father. He brought his family to live at Lynnewood Hall, and built on the art collection that his father had. He decided that he would open the collection to the public and from 1915 - 1940, members of the public could make appointments to come and view the art.
Left In Limbo
Joseph was a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. As he neared age 70, he took ill and made plans for his entire art collection to be donated to the gallery, and it was formally appraised at $19 million dollars. When Joseph passed away in 1943, it meant that Lynnewood Hall would now pass onto his children, but none of them wanted the responsibility of the upkeep of the huge home.
They decided to sell the property, but there didn’t seem to be a market for such a large house, especially during and just after WWII. Parcels of the estate's lands were sold off, some to train military dogs. In 1948, after years of the Widener family trying to get the estate off of their hands, the Neoclassical Revival mansion was finally sold, but they had dropped the price staggeringly low.
A New Owner
A developer bought it first but didn’t do anything with it. Then, Lynnewood Hall was bought by the Faith Theological Seminary in 1952 for a sum of $192,000 - a far cry from the millions it had been worth only 15 years earlier. The seminary had been founded in Baltimore, Maryland in 1937.
The mansion had fallen into disrepair in many areas, and the seminary began to sell it off piece by piece to pay for the upkeep. From more acres of the land to the inlay walnut paneling from several rooms, and even priceless fountain figurines. Three-hundred and fifty acres in total were sold off, leaving the group with around 33 acres to live on, including the area occupied by the mansion itself.
Piece by Piece
It became a constant battle to keep the mansion warm and lit. Bills were mounting and the seminary decided that all the furnishings would need to be sold. Silks, velvets, and all the luxurious furnishings that had guests in awe at the beginning of the century were now stripped from the mansion.
Auctions were held to sell off each item, which meant that many were lost through time. Gone were the parties and high-class guests, and the interiors were beginning to look unrecognizable. Widener’s legacy was barely a shell, and rooms were completely abandoned and left to rot. The seminary was struggling to pay the mortgage, too, and the situation was only tanking further with time.
Eventually, the Faith Theological Seminary had plundered what they could and realized that it was not sustainable to stay in Lynnewood Hall. Those who had lingered now packed up and left, deserting what had once been one of the grandest homes that America had ever seen.
The gardens had not been maintained, the paint had been chipped off the walls, and animals made homes in the rooms where the highest of society once socialized. Some intrepid photographers sneaked past signs to keep out, to capture the mansion’s state of disrepair.
In 2003, officials in Philadelphia announced that Lynnewood Hall would be protected under the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. This distinction is bestowed only on seriously endangered historic properties, but who could argue that this beautiful home should be saved?
Lynnewood Hall is listed as the 12th largest historic home in the United States. It has been the subject of various court cases as the Cheltenham Township where it is located has fought to make its conservation of utmost priority. The First Korean Church of New York owned the property for some time, but the home was not in use during their ownership.
A Wealthy New Owner?
Lynnewood Hall was put on the market in 2014 for $20 million. It’s a huge sum, but not beyond the realms of possibility for many millionaires in the country. However, no one has seemed interested in the home, likely because of the huge amount of renovation required on the property.
The price was reduced to $17.5 million, and then finally sold in 2017 for $11 million, but no one knows who the owner is. Renovations have been estimated at anywhere between $3 million up to $50 million! It remains to be seen if the American version of Versailles may open once again to the public, but its incredible story is in the public domain for all to see.
These Once-Lavish Mansions From Around the World Are Now Standing Empty
The buildings you are about to see were once large, lively mansions populated with families, expensive furniture, and decor. They were beautiful, expensive, and stood as testaments to the status and class of those who built them. But now, these mansions are deserted, frozen in time and space.
Instead of becoming homes passed down through generations or getting turned into monuments, museums, or luxury hotels, these mansions were deserted, usually due to some mysterious, dark secret or family drama. Take a look through this list and into the past to learn the fascinating stories behind each abandoned mansion.
Gbadolite, Democratic Republic of Congo - Bamboo Palace
The Bamboo Palace is only a small part of the palace complex that Mobutu Sese Seko, the former president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), built for himself in the 1970s. The palace complex in the town of Gbadolite cost $100 million and was named his “Versailles in the Jungle”.
He built three separate residences in this complex, including the Bamboo Palace, and they were each equally ornate and elaborate. They were all filled with luxury Carrara marble, gilding, and Louis XVI furnishings. They also had expensive Murano chandeliers and paintings by famed artists Renoir and Monet.
The Bamboo Palace had to employ 700 staff members in order to meet the needs and fulfill the whims of the president and his family, which were known to be quite lavish. In fact, the president had an airport built close to his house so that he and his wife, Marie-Antionette, could fly to Paris to go on designer shopping sprees whenever they chose.
Mobutu even went as far as building one palace that was a small replica of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. It was called the Peking Palace and was used for family retreats, as well as a place to welcome foreign VIPs and dignitaries.
Only the Best Entertainment
Mobutu and his family lived such an extravagant lifestyle and took such great pride in entertaining their guests that there was even a nightclub in the complex in Gbadolite. The nightclub had swanky red walls and a bar that was always stocked with top-notch spirits and vintage wines and champagnes.
Also in an effort to cater to his VIP guests, Mobutu's palace complex had multiple large swimming pools, several lavish guesthouses, and a five-star hotel that political dignitaries could stay at when visiting.
In May of 1997, Mobutu was deposed for embezzling up to $15 billion. After he had been removed from office, he fled to Morocco and later died there in the same year.
The Bamboo Palace, as well as the rest of the palaces in the complex in Gbadolite, was looted after Mobutu was deposed. All of the expensive paintings, chandeliers, and building materials were destroyed or taken by looters. The Bamboo Palace has been sitting deserted and in ruins ever since and is now completely overtaken by the jungle.
Celles, Belgium - Chateau Miranda
The Chateau Miranda in Celles, Belgium looks exactly as you would imagine all deserted mansions to look. This neo-gothic mansion was built in 1866 and has a super spooky and intimidating appearance, especially now that it has been abandoned for a while.
It was built for the Liedekerke-Beaufort family, an aristocratic Belgian family, by the English architect Edward Milner. The Chateau Miranda was built after the family had lost their aristocratic seats at the Chateau de Veves during the French Revolution.
War Takes Its Toll
After the Liedekerke-Beaufort family had settled in at the Chateau Miranda, they were again uprooted and forced to leave their home during World War II when the mansion was taken over by the Nazis.
After World War II ended, the Chateau Miranda was used for several different purposes throughout the years, including a holiday camp, an orphanage, and a school. It was renamed Chateau de Noisy in 1950 and was finally deserted in 1991 due to extremely high maintenance costs.
Since being abandoned, the Chateau Miranda has been through a lot. Not only has it been neglected since its abandonment in 1991, but it has also been the target of lots of vandalism. It has also fallen victim to several accidents that have taken their toll including a severe fire in 1995 and a freak storm that destroyed the roof in 2006.
In 2016, a decade after the freak storm, developer Luc Lavroff decided to take the Chateau Miranda apart and rebuild it in Spain. He began working on his ambitious plan right away.
Unfortunate Turn of Events
However, in a tragic twist, Lavroff had to pull out of the deal in February of 2017 after he was diagnosed with cancer. When he did that, the fate of the Chateau Miranda, which had already been halfway dismantled, was left to a demolition firm named Castignetti.
The Castignetti company was not able to find a buyer and eventually decided that their only option was to demolish the Chateau Miranda. The deserted mansion was then completely torn down by October of 2017, ending its life story.
Roscoe, USA - Dundas Castle
The Dundas Castle is located deep within the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York and is known by several different names, including Craig-E-Clair and the “Castle of Sorrow.” The name “Castle of Sorrow” comes from the mansion’s lengthy, sad history.
In fact, the Dundas Castle had a sad story right from the beginning when it was commissioned in the late 1910s by Ralph Wurts-Dundas, a wealthy man from New York. He never saw the completed mansion because he died in 1921 before it was finished.
Even More Tragedy
After Wurts-Dundas’ death, his grief-stricken widow, Josephine, inherited the property but was then committed to an asylum a year later. At this point, the Dundas Castle property was only half-finished and Ralph and Josephine’s daughter, Murial, inherited the property.
Murial ended up being tricked out of her inheritance and moved to England without finishing the mansion. In England, her state of mind went downhill and the Dundas Castle remained unfinished even though so much work had already been done on it.
Always Changing Hands
When Murial Wurts-Dundas died, her estate sold the unfinished Dundas Castle in 1949. The next owner of the mansion was the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the Masonic Order, who used the home as a holiday camp and masonic retreat for their group.
The Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the Masonic Order used the Dundas Castle up until the 1970s. At that point, the group abandoned the property, and it has since remained empty and unfinished for over four decades.
Today, the Dundas Castle is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is still abandoned and unfinished, but it is being taken care of by a caretaker. The caretaker also guards the property against trespassers as it is off-limits to the public.
Rumor has it that the ghost of Josephine Wurts-Dundas haunts the deserted mansion. Locals also say that the Dundas Castle is so spooky that the ponds on the property will turn into blood whenever there is a full moon.
Sainte-Croix-Aux-Mines, France - Chateau Burrus
The Chateau Burrus in Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines, France is a beautiful and grand neo-Baroque mansion that was built in 1900 for Jules Burrus, a philanthropist and tobacco magnate.
In 1911, Jules Burrus’ son Marcel inherited the Chateau Burrus. Marcel owned the Chateau Burrus without any issue up until World War I, after which the effects of both world wars led to him.spending the next several decades going back and forth between owning and losing the property.
Back and Forth
Marcel, the heir to his father’s tobacco magnate, originally lost the mansion during World War I because he would not give the German army free cigarettes. As his punishment, the German army requisitioned the property. Marcel then fled to Switzerland, a neutral territory.
After World War I was over, Marcel made his way back home to the Chateau Burrus and reclaimed it. However, in World War II, the mansion was seized for a second time by the Germans who used it for an SS officer training center.
For Sale For Decades
Marcel fled and hid in the Pyrenees Mountains for the remainder of World War II. After the war was over, he recovered the Chateau Burrus yet again in 1945 and subsequently remained the owner of the Chateau Burrus for the rest of his life.
Marcel died in 1959. The Chateau Burrus was sold to a religious order after his death and remained in their hands until the early 1990s when the property was then listed for sale again. It has remained empty and abandoned ever since.
There's Still Hope
The Chateau Burrus has also been called Chateau Lumiere. This nickname comes from all of the mansion's rooms that are filled with plenty of natural light thanks to its large, open windows.
Since being listed for sale in the early 1990s, the deserted mansion has been left untouched aside from some vandalism, and completely unmaintained. Not all hope is lost though, as it still has potential. A huge restoration could ultimately turn this property back into a bright and thriving home.